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HEALTH CARE

Lack of funding forces several London-region hospitals to halt surgeries, including hip replacements at St. Thomas Elgin

By Jonathan Sher, The London Free Press

Practically immobile, in pain and using a cane, 82-year-old Stan Boughton of St. Thomas has waited since August for a hip replacement at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital. (DEREK RUTTAN, The London Free Press)

Practically immobile, in pain and using a cane, 82-year-old Stan Boughton of St. Thomas has waited since August for a hip replacement at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital. (DEREK RUTTAN, The London Free Press)

More than two London-region hospitals will mothball their operating rooms for key surgeries because of a lack of funding, a fact that escaped the notice of regulators whose oversight has now come under question.

No hips will be replaced at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital during the last 110 days of the budget year.

Surgeons replacing knees will be busy through January, but after that there will only be two operations in the first three weeks of February and none in March, The London Free Press has learned.

The budget year ends March 31.

The surgical shutdown began the same week the provincial agency that oversees hospitals in the region, the South West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), fired shots at what it said it believed were the only two hospitals in Ontario — in Strathroy and Woodstock — to blow through their surgical money for the year too fast.

But with the St. Thomas hospital in the same boat, the opposition health critic at Queen’s Park is questioning whether regulators are out to lunch, deliberately downplaying a widespread problem or retaliating against surgeons who dare to speak out for their patients.

“Some hospitals will be fearful to come forward because of fear of reprisals,” said Progressive Conservative critic Jeff Yurek, the MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London.

“We need to hold (Ontario Health Minister Eric) Hoskins to account.

“Why are there only two hospitals singled out?” he asked?

Asked if he’s concerned regulators were unaware of the halting of some surgery in St. Thomas, Hoskins said, “It’s up to the hospital itself” to report when it’s missed the mark.

But officials in St. Thomas say they did just that, reporting every month to the regulator in the London region how many of the funded hip and knee replacements had been done.

The St. Thomas hospital, “like all hospitals, (submits) data (monthly). . . . The (LHIN) has access to the data once submitted and is able to run a variety of reports including volumes (for) joint replacement surgery,” hospital spokesperson Nancy Lawrence said via email.

The hospital knew since early fall that it would run out of funds to replace 174 hips and knees well before the fiscal year ended March 31, she wrote.

But 13 days ago and as recently as last Friday , the head of the LHIN, Michael Barrett, said he was unaware the final hip replacement at St. Thomas for the fiscal year has already been done.

“Our indication was we only had two hospitals (who would run out of surgical funds,” Barrett said. “It seems we have a discrepancy.”

But that sort of explanation doesn’t sit well with Yurek.

“I would expect the LHIN would know how each dollar was spent,” he said.

The fumbling of key information between a hospital and the LHIN is just the sort of problem flagged earlier this month by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk.

The Health Ministry relies on LHINs to improve health care and hold providers accountable, but too often, there’s blind trust, Lysyk wrote: The ministry allows LHINs to fall short of targets, while LHINs don’t check if claims by providers are accurate.

Such concerns became even more critical last week when Hoskins announced bold plans to put far more power in the hands of the LHINs, giving them authority over home care and public health.

The Free Press asked Barrett if LHINs had staff and resources to do the added work Lysyk demanded and take on additional oversight.

“We rely on (health care) providers to give us timely, accurate information. (Providers) have their own oversight through their administrations and boards,” he said.

Barrett disputed any notion he’d singled out Strathroy and Woodstock because surgeons there told patients it was a lack of funding that was to blame for the suspension of surgery.

“It was based on the information and data we had. It was not based on physicians speaking out,” he said.

Regardless of who’s to blame, Stan Boughton, a once-active, 82-year-old who played golf and table tennis, is suffering. Placed on a hip replacement wait list in August, the St. Thomas resident said he doesn’t know when he will get surgery.

“I’m practically immobile, I have to walk with a cane. I’m in a lot of pain,” he said. “What annoys me a little bit is when they call this an elective surgery. It’s necessary for me to function as I was before,” he said.

— With files by Jennifer Bieman, St. Thomas Times-Journal

jonathan.sher@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/JSHERatLFPress